Race to the Top feeds Md.'s federal funds addiction

February 23, 2010

When our two children were young we read to them a thinly veiled parable about the dangers of drug addiction titled the "Crickle Crack Tree." It was a strong story about a squirrel that eats fruit from the all-too tempting tree only to find himself going back for more and more until he feels he can't survive without the fruit.

I'm afraid the federal government has become our Crickle Crack tree, and quite honestly I don't know how we can wean ourselves from it. By offering monetary incentives for the adoption of various programs and requiring certain criteria be met before the financial grants can be given, the federal government has found a way to shape and influence everything from education to the environment. Unfortunately, the tree that tempts so many states and local jurisdictions does not always bear the fruit it promised.

The most recent offering of fruit from the federal Crickle Crack tree is the money being offered to states under the "Race to the Top" program for educational excellence. What state can afford to walk past a tree offering $250 million in educational aid in this economy? Even Maryland, a state that has achieved a No. 1 national educational ranking for the past two years is preparing to submit its plan to harvest the federal fruit. And why shouldn't they? Participation is voluntary. Counties don't have to get involved. But what county struggling to fund its education budget will be able to withstand the pressure should they waver in their commitment to participate? Before picking from the federal tree Maryland should look long and hard at the consequences of adopting some of the federal guidelines/suggestions attached to the Race to the Top grant.

One of the most controversial of these guidelines deals with extending the tenure period from two to three years. The adoption of this proposal will undoubtedly satiate the appetites of those who believe shortcomings of the public education system are linked to poor teachers who are protected by tenure laws and teachers' unions that require administrators to adhere to those laws. Here are some of the possible outcomes of adopting this proposal as I see them. It has been stated that in response to the extension of the tenure period, school systems would provide an extensive network of mentor teachers. Typically, mentor teachers are some of the brightest and best teachers in the school system. So students lose one of the best teachers in the building to a quasi- administrative position only to find a new or non-tenured teacher taking the place of the mentor. And that is only if the school system decides to replace that teacher. If they don't replace the teacher, they compensate by distributing that teacher's students to other classrooms, thereby increasing class size. Either way, students lose.

One of the true ironies of this idea is that by extending the probationary period by an extra year, administrators will now have to conduct another year of formal evaluations for every non-tenured teacher, thereby reducing the time they have to evaluate tenured teachers. Administrators, teachers and students can generally identify a new teacher who isn't going to make it before half a school year has transpired. If everyone is doing their job, it's highly unlikely that a third year of probation will prevent a "bad" teacher from gaining tenure. What it might prevent however, is tenured teachers from receiving the observations and help they need and deserve.

Finally, what guarantee is there that school systems that receive the grant will continue to receive the same levels of funding necessary to meet the new codes set forth by the state department of education long after Race to the Top is forgotten? More mentor teachers, more teachers needed to fill their spots; more administrators, more teachers to fill their spots; more evaluations, more conferences, less time for students, less time for other duties, it all adds up.

Maryland probably can't afford to pass on chance to infuse so much money into its education system, but before reaching for the fruit, there should be a plan in place to deal with its unintended consequences.

John W. Jones, Bel Air

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